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Mayotte: home to the “biggest marine cemetery in the world”

by Maggy Donaldson

Mayotte — one of four main islands that comprise Comoros, an Indian Ocean island group — became an overseas department of France in 2011, at the wish of its inhabitants.

Yet its three sister islands form the separate, sovereign Union of the Comoros.

And on these other islands, not everyone is happy.

“What have we, the Comorian people, done that is so bad that history doesn’t treat us like other people of the world?” the Union president, Ikililou Dhonine, asked last year.

“Why must we ... justify the unity of our people, our history, our geography and our culture?”

So now that, for the 39th time, the future of Comoros is on the UN General Assembly’s docket, it’s a safe bet the Union president will again ask world leaders to press France to stop governing Mayotte.

What is France’s interest in governing a tiny island few people have ever even heard of, with a population of barely 200,000 people?

Ahmed Abdallah explained: “It’s a question of interests, strategies, and the power to be present in the Indian Ocean region.”

Abdallah represents the Permanent Mission of the Union of Comoros. He believes “Mayotte is part of Comoros. Decolonisation means colonisation is supposed to stop. We can’t be four islands, and then become three.”

France operates a military base in Mayotte for a detachment of its Foreign Legion, strategically located for access to both Madagascar and Africa’s eastern coast.

It is an important presence for France to maintain, especially as countries including China and India aim to increase their global influence in the region.

Comoros declared independence from France in 1975, after more than a century of colonial rule. The residents of Mayotte, however, voted in two French-organised referendums to break away from the new nation and remain under France.

In 1976 the General Assembly condemned those referendums as null on the grounds they violated a previous resolution.

At the time, the General Assembly also called on France to leave Mayotte immediately and allow for a unified Comoros.

The UN included the issue in its agenda each year from 1976 to 1995, until France requested its removal. The issue was side-lined to the temporary agenda, where it has remained in limbo, each year deferred to the next.

 

What’s good enough for France, is good enough for Russia

Bonnie Brennan, an expert in international law, explained that the UN has historically adhered to the uti possidetis principle, requiring the respect of former colonial borders to guide the creation of newly independent states.

The principle directed the break-up of Yugoslavia, and many nations in Africa and Asia.

Brennan said allowing Mayotte to separate from Comoros, especially in a unilaterally organised vote, signifies a departure from that concept.

“When it comes to territorial disputes of these sorts, there isn’t really a body of the UN that has clear jurisdiction. But obviously, when France is involved, or any of the five permanent members, the Security Council doesn’t mean anything.”

In 1976, the Security Council drafted a resolution recognising Comorian sovereignty over the island, but France indeed vetoed the motion.

A Russian representative cited the Mayotte dispute before the Security Council earlier this year, using it as justification to veto the Council’s attempt to declare any vote on the Crimean secession illegal. Russia went ahead with the controversial referendum and eventually took over Crimea.

The majority of nations, and the Arab League and the African Union, support Comorian claims to sovereignty.

Comorians consider this global support for their cause as one of many justifications for continuing to pursue the return of Mayotte.

“France had good relations with Comoros; why would they divide it?” Abdallah said.

“We are the same people. When I go to Mayotte, I don’t stay in a hotel; I stay with friends. Like the old African saying ‘We are the meat, and you [France] are the knife.’”

France organised another contested referendum in 2009 to allow Mayotte residents to become official French citizens or not.

The Mahorais, as the islanders are known, voted overwhelmingly in favour, and the island became an official department of France, joining the other overseas departments of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Réunion.

All of these islands are equivalent to administrative regions in mainland France, like the Gironde department that includes Bordeaux, or the Rhône department that includes Lyon.

France-born Michel Charpentier directs a non-profit environmental organisation in Mayotte, his home for a decade.

He said the Mahorais are attached to their French status and “don’t want to return to the past.”

Another local resident, who identified himself as Paul-Jacques, the owner of Le P’tit Moya smoothie bar, concurred. “It’s a good thing," he said. "It’s true we aren’t as developed as France but now we have access to more rights and security.

“We weren’t really colonised; it was a choice. The Mahorais are content to be French.”

As full French citizens, the Mahorais are subject to the same tax, social and civil laws, and are also entitled to the same welfare benefits.

Upon departmentalisation, the legal marriage age rose from 15 to 18, and France instituted secularism, a novelty for an island of 95 per cent Sunni Muslims formerly ruled by Sharia law.

“Becoming French was a request by the population,” Charpentier said. “Even with the cultural similarities, they want to stay French. With an improved standard of living, they don’t want to revert to the Comorian situation.”

 

Migrant deaths

Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world, but Mayotte enjoys the financial benefits that come with European Union (EU) membership, though the island’s average minimum wage remains below that required in metropolitan France.

The EU formalised Mayotte’s membership last January, giving Mayotte access to EU structural funding.

Charpentier said despite improvements on the island since French departmentalisation, socio-economic problems persist.

“The economic situation isn’t completely favourable. There’s still frustration, because the force of the developmental requests by the population can’t be completely assured by the French state,” he said.

“The Mahorais expect a lot from European status that permits them to obtain European credit. It will work all right, but the problem is to create wealth, and that isn’t quite the case yet.”

The economic disparity between Mayotte and the rest of the archipelago is widening, and a major effect is skyrocketing illegal immigration.

Mainly arriving from the Comoros, many migrants die en route or are deported upon arrival.

About 40 per cent of Mayotte’s population is undocumented, according to the international non-profit Medecins du Monde.

Mayotte’s immigration retention centre, often likened to the infamous Lampedusa, is overflowing into slums without running water or electricity.

Human Rights Watch has also raised concerns over the estimated 3,000 unaccompanied child migrants who currently reside on the island.

To fix these problems “there needs to be a readiness from the Comorians and other neighbours,” Charpentier said.

“They still negate the Mahorais decision to stay French; the Comorians still consider that Mayotte is part of the Comoros and the presence of France is colonial. That makes it hard to achieve a solution.”

But illegal immigration and related problems are exacerbated, Comorian officials say, by French visa regulations that inhibit free circulation among the islands, which was allowed until 1995.

The president of Comoros called the 70 kilometres between Mayotte and the rest of the archipelago “the biggest marine cemetery in the world.”

“All countries go through difficulties, but we don’t lose hope,” Abdallah said.

“Every year this problem is raised at the General Assembly level. From the Comorian side, willingness is there. But French willingness must be there too. And from the Comorian side, the fact that Mayotte is Comorian is non-negotiable.”

 

This is an edited version of an article first published in Le Monde diplomatique. Copyright © 2014 Le Monde diplomatique. Used by permission of Agence Global.

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